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Words to Make a Living By

Times Staff Writer

In his daily scramble for work, Thousand Oaks laborer Jose Ceh has hauled sacks of cement, hung drywall and dug up landscaping.

But few tasks have been as hard as his weekly struggle to learn the alphabet or list the days of the week in a tongue as foreign as his new surroundings. Three times a week, Ceh and other day laborers unable to find work trek to City Hall to learn English.

“People who speak English are going to more easily get ahead,” Ceh, 32, said in Spanish. He recently left a wife and three children in the Mexican state of Yucatan to pursue bigger paydays.

In five months here, he has discovered it’s a tough go.

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Contractors and homeowners often refuse to pick up workers who don’t understand basic instructions. So Ceh attends the English classes at City Hall, studying whenever he can’t find work. He hopes his new skills will be his ticket to a permanent job.

“I’m trying to make a better life for my family,” he said. “We’re lucky to have this opportunity.”

The free classes, which started in September, are provided by the Oxnard-based social service agency City Impact through a $25,000 grant from Verizon. Thousand Oaks provides a meeting room for the classes, extending efforts to assist day laborers in a community that hasn’t always been friendly to them.

Similar efforts are taking place across Southern California, where hiring halls are supplying everything from computer lessons to job training to give laborers a leg up in the job market.

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Once aimed simply at getting laborers off the streets amid complaints from residents and merchants, many employment centers have evolved into full-fledged service providers.

A Glendale hiring site provides on-site job training; one in Pasadena offers English classes, computer training and legal aid.

Three centers in Los Angeles offer those services plus seminars on domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse. Laborers also take part in neighborhood cleanups and other community improvement campaigns.

“The idea used to be to find a place just to keep day laborers where they wouldn’t bother anyone,” said Antonio Bernabe, coordinator of the day labor program for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

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“Now we are giving them resources and giving them tools to be better workers and better community members,” he said.

Those efforts are not universally embraced.

Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who has long battled illegal immigration, contends that the majority of day laborers are here illegally and therefore not entitled to such assistance. He would like to see immigration inspectors screen hiring sites and weed out those with no right to work in the country.

“I don’t believe that the people working at these sites are bad people ... but at the same time many are not paying taxes. They are working under the table and they are not abiding by the law if they are illegally in the United States,” Gallegly said.

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“If somebody has a legal right to be in this country, I certainly support anything we can do to help them assimilate,” he said. “But if they are not here legally, I think we should use that money to buy them a bus ticket.”

The Thousand Oaks hiring site was born out of residents’ complaints about day laborers congregating in the city’s Old Towne section at Fairview Road and Crescent Way.

In response, city leaders agreed two years ago to establish a hiring site near the Ventura Freeway, earmarking $50,000 to install portable toilets, bike racks, picnic tables and a circular driveway so contractors and other prospective employers wouldn’t clog traffic when they stopped to pick up workers.

The move improved safety for workers and motorists and helped soothe some neighborhood concerns, Assistant City Manager Scott Mitnick said.

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“Since the city is involved with the day laborer situation, this was a natural extension,” he said of the English classes. “Many of the laborers have told us they want to learn English, they don’t want to be day laborers forever.”

Surveys conducted by the city and City Impact bear that out.

An average of 40 men use the site daily and about half expressed interest in learning English. Some have finished the equivalent of high school and others can’t read or write in their native language.

So far, 17 laborers have taken part in the program, although class size varies depending on how many get work on a given day. For the three hours each day that the classes are held, men in jeans and work boots huddle inside a conference room usually reserved for the Toastmasters speaking group, practicing basic vocabulary and piecing together simple sentences.

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“The men know it’s essential that they learn English,” said Jorge Cerda, who runs the classes and serves as a liaison between the laborers and City Hall. “Many of them understand it’s a big limitation and they want to do something about it.”

The motivation is apparent. Many walk or ride bicycles to City Hall, some traveling nearly a mile for the classes after a full morning of crowding around pickup trucks to plead for a few hours of work.

Most live in or near the Thousand Oaks neighborhood where they now seek work. And some, like 39-year-old Arturo Barragan, have stood on city street corners for years looking to trade their muscle for some quick cash.

The laborer left his impoverished village in the Mexican state of Guerrero five years ago in pursuit of steady employment.

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Some days he gets all the work he can handle. But after striking out on a recent morning, Barragan headed to English class determined to improve his chances.

“If I am offered work, that is my first priority,” Barragan said in Spanish. “But you have to be able to communicate with your bosses; if you don’t understand English, you can’t get work. I am thankful they have established this school. It will serve all of us well.”


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